Sustainable Burials: It's time for a Rethink

Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries NSW (SMCNSW) has launched a community consultation project seeking customer feedback on sustainable burials.

The SMCNSW Board is seeking community and industry input into its proposed pilot of sustainable burial areas in its Memorial Parks. Currently, there are regulations that constrain sustainable burial options for Sydney residents, even though there appears to be a strong community interest.

While it is not a widely discussed topic at present, burials in traditional coffins can be problematic to the environment, causing the release of toxic lacquers into the surrounding soil, while chemicals used in the embalming process disrupt the natural environment as well. The use of polished stone and marble tombstones permanently alters the landscape, leaving lasting damage to the surrounding ecosystems. Traditional burials also carry a significant cost, making them inaccessible to many.

The idea of sustainable burials had been gaining momentum prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but that was brought to a halt last year. Now, SMCNSW is working with the community to stimulate a meaningful and productive conversation about sustainable burial practices. The hope is this will inform policy makers and suggest changes to the Health Act and other legislation.

“Sustainable burial practices provide people with an affordable and cost efficient alternative to traditional burials,” SMCNSW chief executive Isabelle Meyer said.

“But they can also align with people's religious practices, and values about the environment as well.”

Sustainable burial practices mean many different things to different people, and part of our research is an attempt to understand what of the variety of practices that are undertaken are of interest to the local communities in South East Sydney. Natural burials appeal to many, but can be very “land hungry”, as they are often single burials with tree plantings that restrict future use or reuse.

Reclaiming graves after a fixed period of 25, 50 or 99 years takes place elsewhere in Australia, and allows for memorial stones to be kept and remains to be reburied. There are examples of both practices elsewhere and SMCNSW is fact-finding on what people want, and what the industry could deliver.

SMCNSW is looking to its counterparts in South Australia and others and using lessons learned from around the world to inform the conversation as it endeavours to work with the community on a more sustainable future. SMCNSW and Adelaide Cemeteries recently joined the Regulator in a public discussion facilitated by Randwick Council, which revealed strong interest in options for a range of different approaches to sustainable burial.

“Most people aren’t aware of what the existing legislation already allows, and while there is a need for further reform, we need to be creating opportunities for discussion and awareness now, if we are to start planning for these options in the future” SMCNSW Chair Joanne Muller said.

“SMCNSW’s Board is keen to develop a pilot program based on the community feedback and is working closely with CCNSW, the State Regulator to facilitate necessary changes to the legislation to allow this.”

Dr Meyer added: “It is widely acknowledged that the legislation in New South Wales around burials hasn’t kept up with the times.

“It’s time this was changed to reflect the values of New South Wales residents and provide alternative options for those seeking a different kind of burial and memorial experience.

“We want to build a future framework allowing for these practices - when the time is right. We believe the community should have a voice in that framework.”